Need for Speed: The Run - Deeper than Hot Pursuit, prettier than Battlefield?
18th Oct 2011 | 11:44
Let's be honest, in between the Battlefield's, Uncharted's and Arkham City's, Need for Speed: The Run so far hasn't got the attention it deserves.
Press pause on the Assassin's Creed trailer for a moment though, and you might be pleasantly surprised by what's fast becoming one of the most improved franchises in gaming.
EA Black Box's latest technical tarmac-tearer looks stunning, handles with depth and, in terms of pure racetrack, it's the biggest Need for Speed ever - in fact at 300km, it's more than double the previous record holder.
What's most promising though is it seems to have found a middle-ground between the compelling arcade gameplay of Criterion's Hot Pursuit, and the technical corners and cop-evading of the series' past.
The Run is a premise long-time developer Black Box says it's wanted to create for a long time; a coast-to-coast race from San Francisco to New York City, covering every landmark and metropolis worth twisting a Porsche round along the way.
300 illegal racers are signed up for the challenge, and playing as a somewhat mysterious shaven headed racer (EA wants to keep the whole setup under wraps for now) you're out to finish on top.
It's a setup that again hits the middle notes by pleasing both racing heads and those looking for a story from their Need for Speed, without resorting to loads of bloated cut-scenes starring Kelly Brook (although that would be nice).
That said, The Run is still a very cinematic experience, with your female 'handler' (played by Christina Hendricks) occasionally barking out orders from your car radio and the odd petrol station story section looking well animated and generally polished.
Then of course there's the out of vehicle QTE sequences, most famously showcased during The Run's e3 reveal, which have garnered quite a bit of attention among the gaming public.
It's probably fair to say that the prominence of these sequences has been blown out of proportion - we played for a good few hours and encountered only one, which to be honest broke up pacing quite nicely.
The Run kicks off on the West Coast, after a pre-game cut-scene shows our man meeting with his red headed handler in a Chinese restaurant, who promises him lots of money for getting to Manhattan in the number one spot.
During our hands-on session Black Box insists The Run "is not Hot Pursuit." It explains: "you won't see any 200km drifts in this game". And it's right; kicking off our cross-country race in a chaotic San Francisco cop chase, the very first corners demand the brake pedal's pressed firmly to the ground.
The handling of our BMW certainly isn't a full simulation, but the technical cornering and overarching feel of danger - that one misjudged U-bend could end with our motor wrapped around a steel girder on the Golden Gate Bridge - is pleasantly unexpected.
The Run certainly is a stunning game and the sense of speed generated by Battlefield 3's powerful Frostbite Engine is impressive. In sections - gliding through dusty desert fog or along snowy mountainsides - Need for Speed even surpasses what we've seen of DICE's game. It really is gorgeous.
Moving out of The Golden Gate City showcases some of the variety we expect to see throughout The Run's 2500 miles. Compared to San Francisco's crash-filled set-pieces, the outskirts of California adopt a more mission objective style of gameplay, with minutes-long sections ranging from 'make up time' checkpoint dashes, to 'overtake ten racers'.
This makes it easy for Black Box to mirror sections of The Run's campaign in the promising Challenge Series mode. This new offering is basically a Hot Pursuit-esque Autolog-fest, with over 70 challenges tasking you to humiliate your friends' times and acquire bronze, silver, gold and platinum medals in the process.
You'll also unlock various profile trinkets in a very Call of Duty-esque customisation screen, which allows you to select from tonnes of icons and banners - and even a motto ("outta my way chump!")
Challenge Series is very Hot Pursuit; one task pits you against the clock in a stunning desert behind the wheel of a supped-up muscle car. Another has you drifting up the side of a snowy mountain alongside dozens of competitors, and a third favourite has you weaving through a packed highway, between The Run's particularly impressive traffic AI.
There are even challenges based on classic Need for Speed games, including Underground city tuner races, Corvette night challenges in the style of Carbon and Most Wanted pursuits.
Autolog is naturally as compelling as ever here. Even in our short hands-on session we were persuaded to have another go and wipe those pesky French journos' scores off the leader board (spoiler: we won it for the British).
One challenge in particular grasped our attention - one that Black Box claims sums up as "the essence of Need for Speed". It's s 7-minute checkpoint dash up the side of an autumn mountain track, with leaves littering the roads and corners so tight you'll often have to brake to a complete stop to prevent doing a 360 off the side of a cliff edge.
Porsche Attack, as it's called, is super-technical and makes fantastic use of the Autolog system. The best thing about its Run implementation is how Autolog constantly displays how far behind your nearest friend course time your are, which means you can nail down the exact section of the race course you're lagging behind in.
Autolog's implementation is also slick and comprehensive here, popping on screen at any time with the press of a button, displaying recommended Challenges, a gallery, friends list and news.
Hopefully it's clear then why we think The Run could deliver for both fans of Criterion's game, plus those looking for something a little meatier from the series' veteran developer. It's arriving in the same week as Assassin's Creed and Skyward Sword, but put it on your watch list - you might be pleasantly surprised.